Sunday, February 04, 2007

Why Is Super Bowl Sunday a High Holy Day in the Civil Religion?

When I made my civil religion calendar last year the holiday of Super Bowl Commercial Sunday came before Rodent Shadow Day. Such have been the rapid advances in our civilization that in only one year the movable feast of the Super Bowl has gone beyond the day of the ground hog, and is heading toward Forced Romance Day.

Someday, perhaps, it can make it all the way to Fireworks Day on July fourth, a holiday clearly in need of revitalization.

But what is the Super Bowl for? The game is usually not interesting, the commercials have been pawed over before they are even shown, the half-time show is bloated beyond parody. The most memorable moment in recent Super Bowls concerned a “wardrobe malfunction.”

We make a big deal of the Super Bowl because we need what the great sociologist Emile Durkheim called a “collective effervescence.” Every social group, large and small, periodically needs a shared emotional experience to renew our bond with one another. The larger and more spread out the group, the more it needs a collective effervescence. 9/11 clearly was a genuine collective effervescence for the United States.

The Super Bowl is an attempt to manufacture an annual collective effervescence. It is successful in that in creates a common topic of conversation among, say, half the nation. And it does provide an excuse in the new year to get together with friends and do something social for the purpose of doing something social. In Kentucky we spend a week celebrating a two-minute horse race for the same purpose.

Despite being mostly scripted, though, the Super Bowl can work as a collective effervescence for two reasons peculiar to itself. First, there is an actual unscripted football game buried underneath, which carries the possibility of being interesting. And, because it is just a football game, people can get themselves worked up into ritual emotions, without actually caring about the outcome. Indeed, I think the point of spectator sports is to create a bond that is purely social because it is not, in the end, about anything that really matters. And the bond of sports watchers is not only among fans of the same team, but even with fans of opposing teams. The ritual of opposition creates a bond when the thing we are “fighting” about doesn’t really matter.

The Super Bowl, despite being mostly ridiculous, earns its place in our civil religion calendar.


Anonymous said...


Call me disgruntled. Having been a lifelong sports fan, I am just so tired of all sports hype. Our kid's school had a special "Super Bowl Day" lunch, for which students could dispense with their school uniforms for those of their favorite teams; parents were invited to lunch that day.

If the days of the civil religious calendar serve some purpose, it can only be a pale, weak imitation of true holy days. As I said, call me disgruntled.

Gruntled said...

Agreed. I am not really a spectator sports fan, and I am overwhelmed with the hype. The problem is that there are no actually holy days that can rally the United States any more. They have all become private affairs of particular religious communities. Civil Religion holidays are all we have.

Anonymous said...


Maybe that's the lesson of the holidays of Civil Religion: they actually have no content. It was just a matter of time before we started hyping the Super Bowl.

Do you think it will be long before we bring back emperor worship?

Gruntled said...

Given the quality of the likely emperors, perhaps we should look to Cap'n Crunch?

Seriously, I think the recent revival of interest in the Founding Fathers and Lincoln and Re-Founding Fathers is driven, in part, by a need for civic heroes.